UMass holds first night of virtual campus forum for remote students

UMass administration answered questions regarding financial, residential and academic updates and adjustments

Photo+by+McKenna+Premus

Photo by McKenna Premus

By McKenna Premus, Assistant Social Media Editor

On August 6, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced in an email to the campus community that the University of Massachusetts was reversing its reopening plan, no longer offering on-campus housing for students whose coursework is entirely remote.

On Thursday evening, students who are taking fall courses remotely and will not be accessing campus were able to participate in a live virtual campus forum with Subbaswamy and other University administrators. The administrative panel answered questions submitted by students and their families prior to the event, as well as during the live forum, concerning the recent changes.

Subbaswamy began the forum by thanking students and their families for their patience and cooperation, and stated his intentions to provide context for the University’s recent decision to reverse its reopening plans, with classes scheduled to start in less than three weeks.

“I understand your disappointment and frustration, even anger, with our announcement last week to change the original plan for the fall,” said Subbaswamy. “We want you to know we hear your concerns, and that’s why we’re here today.”

According to Subbaswamy, the University’s reopening plan’s changes were announced to the campus community six hours after the decision was made, with one of the determining factors being inadequate testing capacities to account for the campus population that was expected to return to campus.

“Considering the incubation period for coronavirus, testing twice a week is really much safer and gets you the ability to contain the spread of the virus than testing once a week, which is what we had originally planned based on the information that was available then,” said Subbaswamy. “With the number of students that we would have had on campus, we would not have had the capacity to, under logistics, do twice a week with these large numbers of students.”

“We decided that the best thing to do…for the University community, and the external community, as well, was to get back to the minimum amount that we needed to sustain,” said Subbaswamy.

About 2,000 viewers tuned in to the hour and a half-long event, during which Office of the Chancellor Chief of Staff Rolanda Burney moderated and directed questions to the various administrators and department representatives regarding financial, residential and academic updates and adjustments.

Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Andrew Mangels spoke to the University’s finances, stating that UMass “is not saving any money by closing campus.”

“We have significant financial issues associated with the way we decided to operate campus,” said Mangels. “Many of our revenue streams are going to be under pressure for the fall semester, and, most importantly, our room and meal plan revenues are going to be reduced by over $60 million. This semester we are doing everything we can to reduce our costs and to try to balance our budget here on campus, but unfortunately there really are no cost savings, even with all the operational changes that we’re going to be making with the reduced number of students on campus.”

In response to questions pertaining to residential life, Residential Life Student Services Director Dawn Bond stated there is no current plan in place regarding on-campus housing for the spring 2021 semester, and original fall housing assignments are not guaranteed for the spring.

“It’s difficult to say that we’ll retain assignments, depending on the number of students and if we have to remain in single occupancy,” said Bond.

Executive Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management Jeffrey Hescock said the University will continue to update their website with information pertaining to confirmed COVID-19 cases at UMass Amherst. The University is also working on a new “dashboard” which will be made publicly available and will provide additional information on COVID-19 statistics, including both asymptomatic and symptomatic testing results, according to Hescock.

In response to a question regarding pass/fail options, Associate Provost for Student Success Carolyn Bassett announced that the Faculty Senate recently passed a new provision for the fall semester allowing students to designate up to three courses as “pass/fail.” This includes courses designated as University requirements or major requirements.

“I think this is going to be welcome news for many students, because this issue of pass/fail has been really important to students,” said Bassett during the forum.

Bassett said the news regarding the Senate Faculty’s decision is “really hot off the press,” as it was made within the last couple of days, “understanding that students are facing so many disruptions in their studies.”

In response to questions regarding semester course withdrawal, Assistant Registrar for Operations Thomas Fritsch clarified that students who choose to withdraw from their courses for the fall semester will not be subject to the usual $60 re-enrollment fee when re-enrolling for the spring 2021 semester. Students who withdraw from their courses for the fall semester and do not plan to return until the fall 2021 semester must apply for re-enrollment by March 15, 2021, or they will be subject to the $60 re-enrollment fee.

According to Deputy Chancellor and Chief Planning Officer Steve Goodwin, the Recreation Center will be closed, and the library will have contact-free pick-up available for students living both on- and off-campus. UMass Transit PVTA buses will be operating, but with limited capacity, allowing 20 passengers who are required to wear masks and maintain proper social distancing.

Director of Financial Services and Customer Relations Matt Mourovic spoke to student employment opportunities: “There are student employment positions that are both on-campus and available remotely. Just because you are engaging with the campus remotely doesn’t mean that you can’t work.”

Disability Services will be fully functional and will be operating in a remote fashion, according to Disability Services Interim Director AnnMarie Duchon.

Student Engagement and Leadership Executive Director Johnny Tooson answered questions about off-campus student life. With regards to Greek life, Tooson said sororities and fraternities will not be banned from opening, but they are expected to have virtual components and reduced housing capacities.

Subbaswamy closed the forum on an apologetic but hopeful note.

“I hope you have a sense that the faculty and staff of UMass are working very hard to ensure your success…and maintain as high a quality of educational experience and interactions as we possibly can do,” said Subbaswamy.

“I’m sorry that we had to make this reversal in the interest of the health and safety of the University community, including the students. And we certainly appreciate your patience. We appreciate your cooperation, as we move forward and overcome this particular set of challenges, and I wish you all a healthy and safe fall semester, wherever you are and however you’re accessing the University.”

The live forum was recorded, and will be made available to the public on the UMass website sometime in the following days.

McKenna Premus is an Assistant Social Media Editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mckenna_premus.